Authoritarian Proposal Threatens Academic Freedom at the University of Helsinki: What is to Be Done?

A proposal to create an authoritarian decision-making model for the University of Helsinki threatens academic freedom and trust. It has just arrived from our Rector, and I first heard about it two days ago. A key change would be about the selection of deans and heads of department. According to the proposal, they would be selected top-down, rather than by the academic communities as is the case today.

I assume the people who have made the proposal will soon publicly argue why they want to undermine what remains of our academic democracy. There seems to be some ambiguity about the authorship of the proposal. My understanding is that there was first a working group that formulated various alternatives about the selection of academic leaders. The board of our university seems to then have modified it so that a significantly more authoritarian alternative has become the official proposal.

As the leadership jargon has been so often repeated within some corridors of our university, I hope this proposal will soon find clearly identifiable lead authors who can publicly try to convince us of the need for more authoritarian leadership. Please, tell us why. Now is the perfect moment to be loud and proud of your proposal.

Last time there was a proposal to take the selection of deans and heads of department out of the hands of our academic communities, the response of the university was strongly for academic freedom and our right to select and trust our leaders. This was during the reform struggles of our university toward the end of the last decade. There was an overwhelming support for the idea that deans should be selected by the faculty councils and heads of department by the departmental councils, as they had been since the democratization of the university twenty years earlier.

The will of our academic communities was so clearly expressed that this pillar of academic democracy was not undermined in the last round of university reforms, even if some other aspects of decision-making became significantly less democratic.

For the time being I am slightly puzzled about why the authors of the proposal have decided to act like this. Apart from expressing disrespect for core academic values, the proposal sounds like a tactically bad move. It is likely to undermine trust and increase discomfort in our campuses. It is likely to be strongly opposed by many. The silver lining is that it offers an opportunity for our communities to express belief in our own capacity to select our deans and heads of departments.

Even with all my sadness about this authoritarian proposal, I am happy to recognize that our top leadership seems to have an honest intention to at least hear comments about it. Simple hearings are, of course, not all there is to democratic participation. Authoritarian reforms are sometimes legitimized by referring to an overwhelming opposition by simply stating “it was discussed” and “various opinions were heard”. We now need various kinds of public debate and pressure. I also hope our departmental and faculty councils, as well as unions, will present clearly formulated positions on the proposal. What other things should be done?

If sufficiently good arguments can be presented to support the authoritarian alternative. I am willing to modify my position. Or perhaps someone is able to explain why the proposal is not authoritarian at all? Meanwhile, I believe we can win this struggle about academic freedom.

Teivo Teivainen, Professor of World Politics. In 2014-2016 Research Director at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki.

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